Kostya’s Unhinged Thoughts On Why He Crushed The Reykjavik Open

Two weeks ago I traveled to Iceland for the Reykjavik Open for the 2nd year in a row. I repeated this tournament for a few reasons: 1) The tournament was again stacked with grandmasters, including stars like Giri, Andreikin, Jobava, Shirov, Beliavsky, and so on and so forth, making it a great chance to play against amazing players. 2) Iceland is closer to the U.S. than the rest of Europe and is relatively inexpensive to fly to these days. So I had been looking forward to the trip for a little while, this would be my first official tournament as an IM, as FIDE confirmed my title just this past March.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t expect to do all that well. In the past few months I’ve been spending most of my time working, which included teaching after school chess classes, teaching private students, teaching group classes in person, teaching group classes online through Chess University, writing instructional articles for beginners, writing news articles about super-tournaments, recording videos on a variety of topics, and other various projects. What can I say, I’m busy!

The general notion among chess players is that teaching full-time kills your chess, especially if you’re working with beginners. I definitely agree with that perspective to a large extent, it’s very hard to do serious chess work on your own after a day of showing how the knight moves, and saying things like “control the center” over and over again. Apparently it takes more to beat a Grandmaster than just controlling the center.

But I anticipated this problem in advance and had some ideas in mind as to why I might be above the so-called “teaching curse”. For one, a few of my private students are in the 1500-2000 range, which means that in order to prepare lessons for them, I often have to review classic games that I’ve forgotten, or if I’m lucky, discover instructive gems that benefit my own chess. Additionally, I’m often analyzing with my students, and rarely turning on the engine, which (hopefully) keeps my analysis skills sharp. Lastly, I spend a lot of time watching chess commentary–leading up to the tournament I was watching Peter Leko’s commentary of the Grenke Chess Classic, which was filled with absolute chess gold.

And I’m dead serious, Leko’s commentary is worth re-watching in full. In addition to being really good at analysis, obviously, Leko also discusses every opening played in detail, his experience of preparing the lines himself, divulges which novelties he had studied before (that have since been played), and much, much more. He’s also able to more or less read the mind of every player in the hall, and explain exactly which lines they’re calculating, what they’re spending their time on, everything. Since there are lulls in the action, Leko also talks about much more than just the current chess position. Like his experiences of playing against almost every good player of the last 20 years — Carlsen, Kramnik, Aronian, Anand, Topalov, Ivanchuk, Gelfand, Morozevich, and I think even Kasparov and Karpov too. Leko talks about all the practical intricacies of what it’s like to be an elite player. How he approaches every part of the game. What it’s like to prepare for a motherf***ng World Championship Match! Sorry but I can’t get over how good it was.

So I wasn’t totally inactive going in, but it felt like it, and my expectations for the tournament were low. I thought that the rust would show and I would bungle a few games, but it wasn’t like that. I kind of crushed it, especially towards the end. I also came up with something interesting to do during the tournament, as the Chess^Summit audience should be fully aware of–I decided to record a post-mortem of every round, win or lose. This was risking to be real embarrassing in case I had a garbage tournament, but I thought it would be a really cool project and fairly unique in the chess YouTube world. Fortunately, Isaac was into the idea and the show was born! But the biggest point of going over each game afterwards was that I felt it would be really good for my chess, I can’t remember the last time I went over my games without Stockfish!

My start was fine, 3/5, three wins against lower rated players (though not without some adventures!) and two ultra-instructive losses to a couple of Grandmasters. In Round 3 I lost to GM Josh Friedel without any chances, and without understanding what I did wrong. That doesn’t happen too often to me! The post-mortem with Josh was invaluable, although as Susan Polgar pointed out on Twitter, it would have been cheaper just to pay him for a private lesson than to fly all the way out to Iceland to learn from him! Fair enough.

In Round 5 I got another lesson, this time against GM Helgi Dam Ziska of the Faroe Islands. We played a very offbeat Open Sicilian (I was Black, unfortunately) where he got the initiative from the opening. I provoked the classic ‘Nd5’ sacrifice and was duly punished.

So halfway through the tournament I hadn’t achieved anything special. But I won my next two games (playing down) with real ease. I mean really clean games. This gave me another crack at a GM, Magesh Panchanathan. This time I was super-solid with White and eventually drew after good defense in a slightly worse endgame.

In Round 9 I played a brilliancy! I defeated IM Gudmundur Kjartansson in a lovely King’s Indian Defense. I had amazing preparation for this game, and luckily my opponent walked right into it. I even had the gall to compare myself to Nakamura, but can you really blame me?

This setup a final round with much on the line, money, rating, and the pride of finishing the tournament strong. Without any pretense of winning, I sought to play a solid game against IM Burak Firat, whose 2503 FIDE rating was nothing to sneeze at. I was doing fine from the opening, maybe slightly uncomfortable, but that quickly turned once I realized that my opponent had pushed beyond the reasonable limits of his position, and was greatly overextending, especially on the clock too. So I seized my chance and converted a fine endgame. I know the sound is quite bad but the content is really instructive!

So to wrap up, as I keep mentioning to everyone willing to listen, I don’t feel like I played so amazing. Yes, I scored 7.5/10 to earn 6th place and take down the Top U2400 prize and gain 43 rating points (which at my level is a ridiculous gain) in one of the biggest open tournaments year-round. True, all that is true. But if you look at my games, my biggest strength was staying objective and making good decisions (perhaps this was due to my low expectations of the tournament?) at the board. I rarely got over-optimistic and didn’t really blunder anything. Moreover, I didn’t blow any wins, as soon as the position was good for me, I was able to convert without blundering. Come to think of it, I must’ve been in a good mindset…

Well, I’ll ponder on how to repeat this success. Until next time!

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